Science@NASA: EMS Electromagnetic Spectrum (Episode 2) - Radio Waves
The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. The "electromagnetic spectrum" of an object is the characteristic distribution of electromagnetic radiation emitted or absorbed by that particular object.
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MEASURING THE ELECTROMAGNETIC SPECTRUM
The electromagnetic (EM) spectrum is just a name that scientists give a bunch of types of radiation when they want to talk about them as a group. Radiation is energy that travels and spreads out as it goes - visible light that comes from a lamp in your house and radio waves that come from a radio station are two types of electromagnetic radiation.
Other examples of EM radiation are microwaves, infrared and ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma-rays. Hotter, more energetic objects and events create higher energy radiation than cool objects. Only extremely hot objects or particles moving at very high velocities can create high-energy radiation like X-rays and gamma-rays.
Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light. Like all other electromagnetic waves, they travel at the speed of light. Naturally-occurring radio waves are made by lightning, or by astronomical objects. Artificially-generated radio waves are used for fixed and mobile radio communication, broadcasting, radar and other navigation systems, satellite communication, computer networks and innumerable other applications.
Different frequencies of radio waves have different propagation characteristics in the Earth's atmosphere; long waves may cover a part of the Earth very consistently, shorter waves can reflect off the ionosphere and travel around the world, and much shorter wavelengths bend or reflect very little and travel on a line of sight.
Discovery and utilization: Radio waves were first predicted by mathematical work done in 1865 by James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell noticed wavelike properties of light and similarities in electrical and magnetic observations. He then proposed equations, that described light waves and radio waves as waves of electromagnetism that travel in space. In 1887, Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the reality of Maxwell's electromagnetic waves by experimentally generating radio waves in his laboratory. Many inventions followed, making practical the use of radio waves to transfer information through space.
Propagation: The study of electromagnetic phenomena such as reflection, refraction, polarization, diffraction and absorption is of critical importance in the study of how radio waves move in free space and over the surface of the Earth. Different frequencies experience different combinations of these phenomena in the Earth's atmosphere, making certain radio bands more useful for specific purposes than others.
Radio communication: In order to receive radio signals, for instance from AM/FM radio stations, a radio antenna must be used. However, since the antenna will pick up thousands of radio signals at a time, a radio tuner is necessary to tune in to a particular frequency (or frequency range). This is typically done via a resonator (in its simplest form, a circuit with a capacitor and an inductor). The resonator is configured to resonate at a particular frequency (or frequency band), thus amplifying sine waves at that radio frequency, while ignoring other sine waves. Usually, either the inductor or the capacitor of the resonator is adjustable, allowing the user to change the frequency at which it resonates.
In medicine: Radio frequency (RF) energy has been used in medical treatments for over 75 years generally for minimally invasive surgeries and coagulation, including the treatment of sleep apnea.